Thursday 20 January 2011

The Theatre of Protest

Forty years on from les événements, is the UK seeing the blossoming of a new, theatrical protest movement?

In the Spring of 1968, students and protesters occupied the Theatre de L’Odéon in Paris. Pouring forth from the stage came 24 hour rhetorical displays of theory and practice, performances in which the streets were taken to the theatre. Behind the scenes the costume department was raided, and pirates, princesses and clowns took the theatre to the streets. ‘The Odéon continues indefinitely to be a theatre,’ pronounced the occupiers, whose aim was not to annihilate the venerable institution, but rather, in the long tradition of guerrilla theatre, to transform the space and symbol.

Forty years on from les événements, the UK is seeing the blossoming of a new protest movement. And yet many of the students and protesters who are bravely defining the national opposition to austerity economics and marketised education are wary of looking back to the 1960s when it comes to models of resistance. Certainly, the claim of the middle-aged Daniel Cohn-Bendit that his generation’s losing of the political battle and winning of the cultural one was a ‘good thing for history’, looks woefully partial in the current realities of fiscal retrenchment and propped-up, untamed capital. As one commentator on the anniversary of soixante huitards succinctly put it, ‘the very creative models and concepts that propelled ’68 … are now threads in the vast fabric of commerce and industry’.

What succeeded, as Slavoj Žižek has noted, was not just the commodification of culture, but in a double-move, the culturalisation of the market. Subversion and perversion, in-yer-face and off-yer-face, the ever-decreasing shocks of the new became means of reproducing the cultural economic apparatus. By the same token that sixties terrain, when hedonism was the sweet poison to wither a 19th century authoritarianism, and sex could be called upon to counter repression, bears scant relation to a world in which desires are enmeshed with consumer capital, where the liberated self ended up splayed against the shop window, the free individual a consumptive unit. What Milan Kundera had dubbed all those years ago ‘an explosion of revolutionary lyricism’ seemed reduced to the slogan, now as radical as a sticker on a banker’s Macbook, ‘Enjoy yourself without restraint’.

What is perhaps most compelling about today’s protest movement is that it occupies the mainstream stage, influencing national debate, winning rhetorical battles against the government, playing a canny populist hand, mobilising significant numbers of people - all the while lacking what Dr Robin Archer, my old tutor at LSE, insisted was the essential ingredient of a social movement’s success, institutionalisation. Because this flexible, nomadic, and spontaneous base has a very different notion of what actually constitutes an institution. From Facebook pages, blogs and Twitter feeds, conversations are held and initiatives advanced, the wisdom of crowds decides on legitimate causes and aims, mistakes called and rectified.

There is a pragmatic self-selecting principle at work which allows myriad inputs, a plurality of voices, while retaining cohesion. In this tentative democratic flourishing the post-Fordist techniques of living are repurposed, the network society realises its own resistance, the buzz and the swarm are able to channel their anger. And consequently these protests appear different from those of recent memory; from the scarring battles of labour in the 1970s, the ambient carnivals of the anti-globalisation 1990s, the benign disappointed masses of the anti-war 2000s. To look at the landscape of protest now is to see a latent majority voice constituting itself as a networked field of innovative action and creative dissent.

In viewing this creative dissent, it is no great step to theorise - as Richard Schechner does when he places protest and demonstration on a continuum with mainstream theatre - that the notion of theatricality and drama are key to the articulation of dissenting politics. On the streets the carnivalesque has been on effulgent display. The Guy Fawkes masks combining English historical memory with the hacktivism of Anonymous, mingle with the gloss paper Camerons, the occasional lurid pink Star Wars Storm Trooper, and the baggage-free Clegg-defying Santas. The Book Bloc marching in unison, bearing their home-made neon riot shields mocked up to resemble the covers of loved and relevant texts (Beckett’s End Game amongst them), and bringing, as one blogger noted, the sense that culture itself is in revolt.

Similarly theatrical is the recognition that the human body is a symbolic site - be it dancing in the confines of kettle-raves, sportsday in Topshop, the spontaneous choreography of facing an armoured police line, or being violently dragged from a wheelchair. Indeed, when Cameron decries ‘the mob’, he is like a particularly insensitive critic, failing or refusing to grasp the nature of a very complex and energetic ensemble piece.

One explicitly theatrical work came from The University of Strategic Optimism, a group of players whose inaugural lecture took place uninvited in a busy London branch of Lloyds TSB. Their slogan ‘You marketise our education, we educate your markets’ was only one element in a tightly-woven piece of political theatre.

This and actions like it have been linked to a revivifying of the ideas of the Situationists, those shadowy activist-philosophers whose critiques of consumer capital have for almost half a century been gestating in the underbelly of popular culture. From the pages of their journal they declared ‘theatre is dead’, only to resurrect it as a mobile concept. They would stage their disruptive ‘situations’ on streets, and in public or private buildings, employing a ‘director’ as well as a ‘metteur en scène’, to ‘co-ordinate’ the piece. Situationism would make its way to British theatre through companies like The Agitprop Street Players (the forerunner of Red Ladder) who carried out guerrilla cultural activities such as ‘poster alteration’ on the London tube. It would influence playwrights like John Arden and David Hare, and move Howard Brenton to say of Debord’s foundational text that it offers ‘a very brilliant analysis, and has a certain truth in the spin doctored world of this tiny island’.

Across the pond, the US has its own tradition of protest theatre. Among those occupying the Odéon in 1968 was Julian Beck, the founder of Living Theatre, a company which brought spontaneous, freewheeling political performance to the sit-ins of 1960s America. They shared organisational links with The Yippies and their surreal media stunts, whose leader Abi Hoffmann famously declared ‘Free speech is the right to shout theater in a crowded fire’. At the same time The Black Revolutionary Theatre and El Teatro were adopting marginal spaces, re-purposing without permission their underfunded community facilities, dramatising the antagonisms of class and racial oppression. Later in the 1980s, the AIDS awareness organisation ACT UP staged ‘die-ins’ around Manhattan, in which protestors would pretend to die en masse, chalking white outlines around their bodies, getting up and dying again, until the sidewalks became a mass murderous geometry. As the founder of ACT UP Larry Kramer described it ‘each action is like an enormous show .... We’re divided into committees doing banners, logistics, media, just like a producer would hire people for scenery, costumes, publicity’.

What these moments of theatrical endeavour share is a reclaiming of theatre’s power, and a truthful living-up to its pretensions of cultural relevance. Working with site-specificity, using available technology, breaking down the gap between theatre and performance, pushing formal innovation, interactivity in the expansive political sense of the term; you can’t help but notice there is perhaps more resemblance here to trends in UK theatre of the last five years than to the traditional established theatre. Perhaps more importantly however, what the historical examples above bear testimony to is theatre’s moral and political compass. That theatre can act in periods of profound democratic failure, to give shape and voice to anger and suffering. And more progressively, to apply its transformational properties to the world we now live in, to give us glimpses of cultures we might wish to inhabit, to project life into a richer world.

At the turn of the year, about the same time as Goldsmiths and Camberwell College of Art went into occupation, art students and activists swarmed The Turner Prize awards and pressed attendees into delivering messages of solidarity to the attendant media. And while award season in theatreland continued politely untroubled, and our drama schools went about their termly business, the theatre community was eventually stirred into protest by news of the mass arrests of Belarus Free Theatre by the Lukashenko regime. To be sure, those outside the Belarusian embassy on that cold December night were acting nobly against real injustice. And again, to be certain, censorship runs close to the bone in a theatre which is also justly proud of its pan-European outlook.

And yet there was something quietest there - the sense of a known terrain, a safe clarity of purpose. The gesture that seeks problems elsewhere, as Badiou suggests, has long been part of the way in which neoliberal democracies cope with their essential contradiction. How could a system hailed as the finest given to human history, be so evidentially failing so many? The answer, to look elsewhere. Our societies may be characterised by vast and growing inequality, mental ill-health, poverty and injustice but at least we’re not Rwanda, or Iraq, or Belarus. And while it may seem obvious that a theatre which lacks the political freedom to practice is in a worse off state than one which enjoys it, the question necessarily follows; what is this political freedom worth? What are we doing with it? Does history end here? Who is protesting for us?

Great theatre has long been measured in how astutely it captures and represents seismic social shifts. Now the future is on the streets and in the occupied buildings, where people are shaping new social theatres, intelligently and creatively engaging with digital media, politics and spectacle. Perhaps the protest movement presents an opportunity for British theatre to honestly assess itself as crucial to national culture. To rediscover the belief that theatre can make a difference, to once again become a mover and shaker in cultural history. The stakes could not be higher. As a 1960 Situationist tract had it ‘to give up demanding power in culture would be to leave that power to those who now possess it’. Six years later Julian Beck would be moved to review the Odéon occupation as ‘the greatest theatre I have ever seen’. The challenge for Britain’s theatremakers today is to go one better.

Dance Against Deficit Lies are calling for dancers and choreographers to assist their ongoing events in the capital.
For more information on forthcoming actions check out UK Uncut’s Facebook page
Tickets for Devoted and Disgruntled 6 are onsale now.

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